The short of it is: it is a vast improvement over Season 1. There is more permanence, more cohesive, apparent plot, and a strong heading. ArenaNet seems to have gone from “too many cooks in the kitchen” to “yes, chef” in one Living World season. Also spoilers.
The most objective improvement is that almost everything is now a permanent fixture. Every launch period (2+ weeks) a player can log in to snag the personal story chapter for free. Thereafter it costs 200 gems ($2.50), or 20 something gold. After that, whatever instances and achievements that come with the chapter are at the player’s whim. There are no timed achievements. Either the achievements are tied to the story instances or to the zones themselves.
ArenaNet also chose to devote most of their attention to permanent zones rather than instanced, temporary pop-up areas, such as the Tower of Nightmares, or temporary activities to zones, such as the Marionette. The debris left behind by the temporary activities and areas makes areas of the zone feel unfinished.
Zone Growth and Timelines
Another improvement, in my opinion, is that most of the Living World is tied to the new zones or instances of the old zones. This makes things cleaner with storytelling because ArenaNet does not seem to have the bandwidth to make their world fully living. For both Dry Top and Silverwastes the zone told its own story as it opened up, geographically and mechanically, with each update.
Compare this to Kessex Hills, which has become a dumping ground for the Living World. In Season 1, the Tower of Nightmares exploded over the western half of the zone. Then in Season 2, Mordremoth destroyed Fort Salma. Yet nearby portions of the map seem unaffected. Is the whole map considered “present day”? The western centaurs seem not to really have responded to either the Tower or sealed-up, “destroyed?” Fort Salma, which the centaur forces still attack. Then there are Toxic Alliance sightings all over the place with a few brave or dumb soldiers attacking the shoots. I feel we need a Time Lord to come in to this zone and clear things up.
Lord of the Rings Online, as far as I remember it, had very clean zone design because each zone was tied to a certain period of time. Guild Wars 2 wants their zones to be part of the living world, but it feels… I hate myself for this… immersion breaking when vast portions feel locked in time and unresponsive to the new stimuli. The updates to Iron Marches and Timberline Falls (Concordia) feel a bit more compartmentalized than Kessex Hills. Still, Concordia has undead Risen eruptions, dead mordrem vines, and a commanding officer (Tactician Art) who wants to talk about the Rankor Ruins (Risen, again) while avoiding any mention of the mordrem attack. Things feel muddled. What time period am I in?
In Dry Top, I feel that this is a zone where the leaderless Zephyrites will be forever stranded. The story of the zone along with the destruction of the mining town, Prosperity, is complete. I am more than fine with that because otherwise ArenaNet would have to update the entire zone with Zephyrite progress. The same goes for Silverwastes. It appears the zone is in a state where the Pact is holding on, but the fleet has left to go fight Mordremoth. If the destruction of the Pact, Trahearne, etc. rippled back to Silverwastes, I would expect a different zone. These feel clean, and I kind of hope they stay locked in time.
8 Chapter Novella
The story instances themselves I felt were also really well done. Considering the self-imposed constraints of ArenaNet, there were 8 nice chunks of story, which really tied together in to a cohesive narrative. Compared to Season 1 where so much was hidden, slow, and still mostly undetermined, Season 2 was a great improvement.
In Season 1, it started out with the Molten Alliance attacking various areas. I feel we still don’t know the whole story of the Molten Alliance. Scarlet tricked them together, for some reason. They were part of the destruction of Lion’s Arch, and now… who knows. This, more or less, repeated three times with different enemy combinations, and then the culmination of the Lion’s Arch’s destruction.
Compare that to Season 2, where a crazy sylvari takes down a fleet of airships, the human Zephyrites. There were ties to his madness like Scarlet’s. There were dagger wounds on Zephyrite victims. There were hints of precious cargo being on the airships. End of Season 2: Crazy sylvaris, apparently under Mordremoth’s command, take down a fleet of airships, the Pact’s this time. Dagger-expert Caithe has stolen the Zephyrite’s most precious cargo, a dragon egg. It’s so interconnected that it feels really well thought out and explained.
Even with it clearly being a precursor story to Season 3 or the Heart of Thorns, the story feels complete because there is significant movement and success. The end of Season 2 has us beating one of Mordremoth’s lieutenants, the very one that attacked the Pale Tree. I feel sadly also that curtains have fallen on the Zephyrites with so many of their leaders killed and the dragon egg lost. At least we’ll have memories of Labyrinthine Cliffs and the shadows of the Zephyrites in Dry Top.
The one part I didn’t like was Rytlock’s postcards from beyond. In the first half of Season 2, Rytlock tries to destroy the Foefire magic and instead opens up a portal. Like an ultimate badass he jumps in to the portal. Then throughout the last half of Season 2, Rytlock sent postcards, in a sense, posted on ArenaNet’s Facebook, Twitter, etc. These wouldn’t be critical except in the Heart of Thorns teaser trailer Rytlock is there talking about sylvaris being traitors while killing a bunch of mordrem. I know a lot of people were unhappy with the fiction posted on ArenaNet’s official site that expanded the universe in “necessary” ways. This seems worse in a sense.
Heart of Thorns
Plenty have speculated on the upcoming announcement. Clearly, ArenaNet has a heading. The cinematics tell that much, I think. Hopefully the next season of the Living World iterates all the more. Things are feeling much cleaner with a few small exceptions. Come Saturday (1/25/15) I hope that ArenaNet shares that heading.